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Freedom Girls: Voicing Femininity in 1960s British Pop

Voicing 1960s femininity: not just a “girl singer” [playlist]

“The disc charts cannot stand many girls, no matter how gorgeous they look,” claimed Beatles manager Brian Epstein in A Cellarful of Noise, his memoir of the 1960s. He was explaining why he’d only ever represented one female performer—Cilla Black. His justification falls back on the then-conventional wisdom that girl singers were an anomaly, were each other’s competitors, and that there wasn’t an audience for their work. He was wrong, but his comments are indicative of the assumptions of music industry gatekeepers—assumptions that created roadblocks for women and girls. 

For those who did pursue pop music careers, “girl singer” could be a tough label to bear. For pop singers who start their careers young it could feel like a trap; a categorization that made it hard to experiment stylistically as they grew older and their musical tastes changed. It could be used dismissively, to imply that a singer was naive and lacked the know-how to navigate the music industry on her own, or to dismiss her musical skill. This dismissiveness undermines the impact of girl singers’ voices. Their voices sounded out different ways of being and new ways of imagining the world and shaped what it meant to be a modern young woman. Sandie Shaw, Marianne Faithfull, Millie Small, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, PP Arnold, and other singers in 1960s Britain, often confounded assumptions about what it meant to have a controlled, respectable voice.

This playlist lets us hear how the singers featured in Freedom Girls navigated the often-fraught territory that came with being a “girl singer.” Sandie Shaw’s path took her from Burt Bacharach tunes to surprising rock covers to becoming an alt-rock darling who recorded with the Smiths. Cilla Black went from being the coat check girl at the Cavern Club who made her mark with Merseybeat to the stage of the London Palladium—but she always made her Liverpool connection clear. In songs like “Liverpool Lullaby,” which she sings with an exaggerated Liverpool accent, she vocalizes her link to her home city, just as fellow Liverpool natives the Vernons Girls had done a few years earlier with “You Know What I Mean.”

Lulu on Dutch TV-programme Fanclub, 11 Dec. 1965.
Photo by R. Frings, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL via Wikimedia Commons

Millie Small, the chart-topping ska singer who came to England from Jamaica, had a voice that spoke to changing attitudes towards race. In Jamaica, she had been a local star as half of the duo Roy and Millie; in England she became an international sensation with “My Boy Lollipop;” and towards the end of the 1960s, she released the anti-racist anthem “Enoch Power.” American singers like Madeline Bell, Doris Troy, and Martha Reeves helped soul proliferate in the UK and singers like Dusty Springfield learned the sounds of soul from their voices. Lulu, too, sang with a voice informed by soul. Her career began when she was only 14, and she found it particularly difficult to be taken seriously in the rock world due to her “girl singer” reputation.

Marianne Faithfull was framed as an ingenue at the outset of her career but in the aftermath of sexist backlash her voice and musical style were utterly transformed. Her recent work, particularly songs like “Born to Live,” often looks back to the 1960s with a combination of nostalgia and critique. PP Arnold, too, often harkens back to her 1960s days, when she provided crucial backup vocals on tracks like the Small Faces’ “Tin Soldier” and recorded the first version of “The First Cut is the Deepest.” Released for the first time in 2018, her album The Turning Tide, which was recorded in the late 1960s, re-imagines some of the iconic rock songs of the period. 

Finally, this playlist closes with three songs inspired by the singers who gave voice to 1960s girlhood. Candie Payne’s “One More Chance” hearkens back to the epic pop ballads of Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw. V.V. Brown’s “Crying Blood” evokes 1960s soul and rhythm and blues, and Shelby Lynne’s version of “I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore,” from her album of Dusty Springfield covers, is a tribute to Springfield’s voice and legacy. 

Feature image by Ray on Unsplash

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